Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, January 2008
"All the reviews are reactionary and more or less hostile."
– Victor-Marie Hugo, speaking of the critical reaction to his novel Les Misérables
For a variety of reasons professional critics generally do not review youth theatre productions, possibly following Hugo’s thinking that critics are basically a hostile and reactionary bunch and cannot be trusted to write about anything as fragile as the adolescent psyche. I have worked with young people in the theatre since 1971 and this idea that youth theatre can’t or shouldn’t be subject to review has always bugged me. While I don’t believe that shows presented by children under 13 should ever be reviewed, I do think that high school and college age actors can learn a lot from the experience. That is not to say that critics are all knowing and all seeing, but by the teen years kids are starting to think about career choices and a choosing a career in the theatre means choosing to be written about critically. It is not too early to start learning how critics function.
So I was pleased to be invited by director Jim Charles to come and see and review the C-R Kids production of Les Misérables. Charles invited me because he had absolute confidence in his performers and the production, and that confidence was not misplaced. This production is one of those magic moments in the theatre when everything works, and that is always a miracle to be celebrated, whatever the age of the people involved.
This is not just a damned good youth theatre production of Les Misérables, it is a damned good production – period. Any professional theatre would be proud to present it and anyone who loves theatre should purchase a ticket, pronto, because there are only three more performances left.
The cast consists of 30 young people – 27 high school students, two middle school students and one elementary school student. The C-R in C-R Kids stands for [Jim] Charles and [Tony] Rivera, but it might as well stand for Capital Region too because these performers come from every corner of it. More than 200 youngsters auditioned for this show, and so it is no wonder that those cast represent the very best young talent the area has to offer. There is not one weak link in this cast, which is more than I can say for many of the high-profile productions I review.
Les Misérables is an excellent choice for a youth theatre production because it is a BIG show with lots solo parts available, and because it offers the students a grand opportunity to learn about literature and history as well as theatre and performance. Yes, Hugo’s epic novel is fiction, but Hugo (1802-1885) lived through these times of revolution and change and wrote about them with passion and conviction.
I am not a big fan of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music. His work is certainly popular, but not of great artistic merit. And although Alain Boublil gets credit for the book and lyrics, the “translator”, Herbert Kretzmer has stated "What I was engaged in can't in any way be called translation. A third of the work to be done consisted of a form of translation, a third was free adaptation, with completely new words to existing music, and a third of it involved writing completely new songs." And the original directors of the English-language version, Trevor Nunn and John Caird, are open in saying that they returned to Hugo’s novel (presumably also in translation) rather than Boublil’s libretto to shape the show they opened in London in 1985, (which is still running, by the way.)
Actually, the English version of Les Misérables owes a great deal to Charles Dickens (1812-1870) as well as to Victor Hugo. Nunn and Caird got the directing job because of their success adapting Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby for the stage, and Boublil claims to have been originally inspired to musicalize Hugo’s novel after seeing Lionel Bart’s Oliver! based on Dickens’ Oliver Twist. And Hugo’s tale is what we Yanks would call “Dickensian.” It focuses heavily on the injustices of the social and political systems of the 19th century and has a sweeping story arc covering many decades and involving a number of colorful characters.
What C-R Kids is presenting is billed by Music Theatre International, the rights holders, as the “school edition” of Les Misérables. I am not entirely sure what that means, although it is safe to assume it is pared down in some way and that the vocal arrangements have been simplified. I am familiar with the “Broadway, Junior” shows, which are substantially cut, usually to an 80-90 minute run time to fit easily into a school day schedule, (assuming classes still run 40-45 minutes as they did in my youth.) This is not one of the musicals to which I know every note and lyric, so I cannot tell where and if cuts have been made, but this is no 90-minute kiddie version, it is a fully mounted production running a full two and a half hours.
Les Misérables is not just a big story with a big cast, in its London and Broadway incarnations it is a big stage spectacle depicting the whole bloody French revolution live on stage. The 1874 Cohoes Music Hall does not boast a large stage but that has not stopped C-R Productions from presenting big shows there in the past. For this show they have installed a revolve, but have kept the rest of the sets fairly basic.
Schönberg said of Hugo’s novel: "It's like a big river, that book - you have the feeling of the river rolling and rolling until the sea.” And Nunn ‘s directorial vision presented it as "a constant chase, that has to have, throughout, a sense of perpetual motion..." Here the revolve, Charles’ superb direction, and the high energy that young performers naturally bring to the stage vividly create the impression of the urgent inertia of time and the perpetual motion of humanity moving through it. Two and a half hours never flew by so quickly for me in the theatre.
Not only are the leading actors exceptionally talented, but Charles has cast them very well. Will Boyajian brings great gravitas to the central role of reformed thief Jean Valjean, but his physical height also makes it easy to believe that he is the oldest, the leader, the one to whom everyone looks up. It takes a pile of silver hairspray to give Boyajian the appearance of advanced age as the show progresses, but his acting is actually more convincing than the make-up artist’s efforts. Two of the hardest acting jobs are for adults to play children and for teenagers to play middle-aged folks. Boyajian is to be commended for the fine job he does finding his inner adult.
As Valjean’s nemesis Inspector Javert, Bill Hennings, a sophomore, is one of the younger leads. He is a strong singer and I hope to see him again on local stages. It is to be remembered that Cohoes is an acoustic theatre and that all the soloists are singing over a seven-piece orchestra without microphones. Every single one of them, even the middle and elementary schoolers who play Gavroche, Young Cosette, and Young Éponine, can be heard clearly and sound great. In fact Christopher Flaim, the 6th grader who plays Gavroche, is a real stand-out. His performance is plucky and full of energy. What fun he must be having!
Zoe McGreevy and Mandy Clemente alternate in the roles of Young Cosette (a singing role) and Young Éponine (basically a walk-on role). I saw McGreevy as Young Cosette and was duly impressed with her talent. The two girls’ roles are not nearly as showy as Gavroche, but when Cosette and Éponine hit adolescence – watch out! They are two of the grandest roles written for young women to play, and Britanny Boivin and Cara O’Brien are dynamite in them. Boivin, who has magically morphed from a pretty girl to a lovely young woman since I last saw her on the Cohoes stage 13 months ago as Liesl von Trapp, is the perfect ingénue, with a lovely lyric soprano. O’Brien is also a perfect fit as the tough, street-wise Éponine, showing real emotion as she belted out her Act II solo On My Own.
The wonderful women’s roles are not relegated to the later half of the play. Kelsey Poore impresses in the early part of the show as Fantine, Cosette’s unfortunate mother who dies young and leaves her child in Valjean’s care. And Stephanie Gray is a flamboyant and earthy Madame Thénardier, perfectly matched with Anthony Rotondaro as her slimey, unctuous husband, the Master of the House. Rontondaro brings an interesting physical presence to his role. I don’t think it was just the costuming and make-up that had me pondering a production of Sweeney Todd with Rontondaro and Gray in the leads.
Charles Franklin is another young actor I last saw in lederhosen as a von Trapp who has matured tremendously of late. His voice has settled into a strong tenor and he is excellent as Cosette’s inamorata, Marius. If only he weren’t stuck wearing a 1920’s tail coat throughout the show. It clashes noticeably with the otherwise strong costuming by Pamela Keenan, sort of Fred Astaire Goes to the French Revolution. Surely there must be some garment in the Cohoes costume vault that would fit Franklin, convey Marius’ upper class status, and be more historically accurate?
As the revolutionary leader Enjolras Taylor Collins gets to do some mighty fine flag-waving and tableaux-posing, as well as singing heartily on the rousing numbers Red and Black and Do You Hear the People Sing.
Various unnamed performers get to pop out of the ensemble for solo bits from time to time, and all are impressive singers. For the record, the male ensemble consists of: Alexander Benson, John David Ganther, Ryan Glynn, Jake Luria, Ben McCauley, Adam Sax, John Scala, Paul Smith, and Tommy Swimm. The members of the female ensemble are: Jacqueline Bouchard, Angela Golde, Krista Harbacz, Sara Hickey, Celeste Hudson, Casey Kalica, Rhiannon La Cross, Audrey Nicole Saccone, and Jill Varner.
I believe that participation in C-R Kids is free of charge, which makes this an outstanding contribution by C-R Productions to the region. They are providing a chance for area teens to participate in professional grade theatre and offering outstanding entertainment at just $15 (adults) and $10 (students) per ticket. There is no way that ticket sales alone pay for a program of this scope and caliber, but full houses certainly can’t hurt. January is a month when top-notch theatre is hard to find and the weather forecast for this coming weekend looks clear, so why not support this excellent program and this outstanding cast by booking tickets to Les Misérables before it is too late. I promise you, you will be able to say “I knew them when” about many of these talented young performers.
The C-R Kids production of Les Misérables, runs weekends through January 13 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. Performances Friday & Saturday evenings at 7 p.m., Saturday & Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. The show runs two and a half hours and is suitable for children 9 or 10 and up with some advance history lessons. Call the box office at 518-237-5858 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008